Using the (arguably) peerless example of information visualization, Minard's infographic of Napoleon's march, I endeavored to test the capabilities of each tool, head to head. The goal was to use the multi-layered and data-driven storytelling capabilities of Minard's graphic as a benchmark for visualization.
Setting off, I thought this was going to be very fun process. I was wrong. Very, horribly wrong. I hope the details of this affair will amuse and enlighten.
Step 1: Start off easy.
My first thought was to start with the seemingly simplest tool, Swivel. SImple, yes, but painful when using any real world data. I knew Swivel does not do cartography, yet I had visions of displaying this information in other novel ways. Unfortunately, the tool is so inflexible in its formatting and display options, that we eventually gave up on it.
The cool part is that you can create reports. The bad part is that you cannot embed a report.
Here is one of our charts. It shows the survivors over the longitude values. Unfortunately, we couldn't figure out how to show each troop group separately.
Here is the full report on Swivel.
Step 2: Kick it up a notch.
Many Eyes beats out Swivel with its plethora of visualizations. I had high hopes for mapping out the data. However, locations aren't supported in their world map; it can only be used as a choropleth map.
So again we set off to visualize the data non-spatially. I was hoping to show a network graph of the paths of the three groups of troops, but the options were so limited, that it wasn't useful. The node size and color cannot change based on variables.
We finally decided on a treemap, scatterplot, and bar graph. The scatterplot shows conceptual spatial information (not based in reality of lat/long). It at least gives a sense of north/south/east/west. The treemap (below) shows the vast numbers advancing (white) and the meager numbers retreating (orange). Finally, the bar graph shows the temperatures.
See all of the Many Eyes examples in the Minard Topic Center.
Step 3: Hit it out of the park.
By this point, I am realizing that Tableau Public is really going to put these other tools to shame. I was able to quickly create this pretty thorough replica of Minard's graphic. If I had spent more time, I could have "evolutionized" it to show more of the data and in different ways.
It looks better at full size.
So, you be the judge. Is the Minard graphic even a fair or useful benchmark to use? Is there a better data set or concept to use as our yardstick?
Should these tools even be compared to each other? They have different pros and cons and use cases. Is it worthwhile to compare them as equals?
Reviewed by Kim Rees and Domanique Alicia of Periscopic, a socially-conscious Information Visualization firm specializing in helping nonprofit organizations and like-minded companies convey important messages and elevate public awareness.